In these days, when travel restrictions are foisted upon us, I have found myself reminiscing about adventures of days gone by. Years ago, in my student days, I measured the Raimondi chapel, which is a side chapel dedicated to St Francis in San Pietro in Montori on the Janiculum hill in Rome. The chapel was designed by Bernini and filled with sculpture from his studio.
I became interested in an intriguing hidden window which lights the alter from the side. This illuminates a carved marble base relief of the ecstatic body of St Francis, suspended in mid air by angels. The light, which seems to come from nowhere, would have seemed like a miracle to the original worshippers who would never have seen an electric light. To give this composition even more potency, the magical light is from the east and so would be seen as Divine. East light has been worshiped for millennia and in a pre-scientific age, when people were instinctively scared of the dark the coming of a new day would be seen as a gift from the gods. This pagan belief is ironically central to Christian theology. The line in Luke’s gospel ‘Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us’ illustrates this belief and this is why most European churches face east. It is not to face Jerusalem as I previously thought.
At the time, this side chapel was full of scaffolding which no one seemed to be attending to. This was very useful, because it allowed me to measure high up details which would otherwise be in accessible.
One rainy Saturday I was happily measuring and I heard some organ music wafting in. Initially I thought it was just someone practicing, but when I peeped out I noticed that the church was packed with a wedding in full swing. I did not want to make a spectacle of myself so hid back in the chapel and carried on measuring. I then heard what I thought was the wedding ending so decided to make my move, but to my dismay it was the opening hymn for another wedding. It must have been peak season, because by the time I could get out tactfully I had witnessed three weddings!
Another time, in the same chapel, I was working quite late. A priest was completing some ceremonial hocus pocus over the alter, and when he saw me he rolled his eyes - perhaps thinking he would have to redo the complete ritual. A few minutes later he flicked the lights out and disappeared through a side door, which he angrily slammed behind him. I was now locked in an almost completely dark church with only the statues of Italian nobles and the relics of forgotten saints for company. I stumbled around trying to find a way out, crashing into pews and who knows what. Bearing in mind this was years before mobile phones existed and so I had neither the means to call anyone or the use of a torch.
Eventually I found the front door. Fortunately it was bolted from the inside, so I undid the bolts and escaped, leaving the church with priceless works of art ready for the taking. I saw a carabiniere across the road and told him that the church was unlocked.
Normally I would have tried to communicate using my hotel/restaurant level Italian, but I was so angry I just said “The church over there is wide open, some priest locked me in.” He looked confused….
I don’t think anything was stolen - I never checked.